Strategic Communications

The Strategic Communications KnowledgeBase is an online resource to aid those leading or supporting communications in education in understanding the history, value, framework, planning, and execution of effective Strategic Communications to nurture and build strong relationships in education. Strategic Communications is essential to engage stakeholders and achieve goals at the state level. The elements, activities, and tasks in this KnowledgeBase are designed to better prepare communications professionals within state education agencies (SEAs) to plan for and respond to communication challenges and support implementation of education policy.

Element 1: What is Strategic Communications?

Purpose: To implement a Strategic Communications process, it is important to understand the key principles of Strategic Communication first. This element explores the definitions, descriptions, history, benefits, and major functions of Strategic Communications, as well as what distinguishes Strategic Communications from daily communication activities. Although the focus is on how to apply this information within a state education agency (SEA), background information often comes from other disciplines as well as other educational organizations.

Activity 1: Understand the Principles, Definition, and History of Strategic Communications

A variety of definitions, descriptions, and frameworks have been given for Strategic Communications by experts in the field. Many of the definitions and descriptions included in this activity come from disciplines other than education, but have transferable value. These include the United States Armed Forces, business, public and governmental relations, and higher education. 

Activity 2: Explore the Benefits of Strategic Communications

Strategic Communications can be viewed as an umbrella term that pulls together many communications and related functions from other disciplines under one process to implement an agency’s strategic goal or priority. Although this can be a time- and resource-intensive process, it can also have significant benefits to connect these various core functions with the agency's strategic direction.

Element 2: What background information is needed to develop a Strategic Communications approach?

Purpose: Before developing a Strategic Communications process, it is important for an SEA to research the organization, including its vision, mission, values, and desired outcomes; its history, leadership, and structures; its various audiences, including both internal and external stakeholders; and its goals for Strategic Communications. The SEA should also explore promising practices of Strategic Communications that are likely to be successful based on the information gleaned about the organization. This element explores each of these components and provides resources for how to conduct research or collect the background information needed before designing or improving upon an existing Strategic Communications process.

Activity 1: Establish background context and current reality of the SEA

This activity explores the context and current situation of SEA through the strategic direction, history, leadership, structures, strengths and weaknesses, and cultural norms of the SEA.

Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals: Some might ask, “What if an SEA does not have a formalized vision, mission, values, and goals? Can Strategic Communications exist without those?” Based on the definitions, descriptions, and principles of Strategic Communications identified in Element 1, it is clear that a Strategic Communications approach is one that connects communications activities to the agency’s larger strategic direction, either holistically or for a particular initiative. If the agency does not have a formalized vision, mission, values, and goals, or if the agency does not follow these as a course of direction, it will be more challenging to implement a Strategic Communications approach. It is possible, however, for an SEA to articulate a strategic direction to which communication processes are tied without that strategic direction being formalized through a vision, mission, values, and goals. In this case, a Strategic Communications approach would be based on the articulated strategic direction.

History, Leadership, and Structures: Organizational culture, which is influenced by history, leadership, and structures of the agency, will drive various aspects of a Strategic Communications plan. It is not possible for any SEA to adopt another organization’s Strategic Communications plan because they are situated within different organizational cultures. The culture of one organization may lend itself to cross-divisional conversations without formalized structures, for example, whereas another organization may rely on formalized structures to ensure that cross-divisional conversations are productive. Similarly, leadership of one SEA may include a large number of people whereas another may defer to only a few people as decision-makers. These pieces of background information will shape the overall Strategic Communications plan because they shape the overall strategic direction as well as the specific components or activities included in a Strategic Communications plan.

Activity 2: Determine your audiences and understand their perspectives

Understanding the various perspectives of audiences and stakeholder groups requires research and information gathering.

Audiences, including Internal and External Stakeholders: Some have described the key to Strategic Communications as understanding the various audiences of the SEA and determining the best activities for engaging them in the strategic direction.  In most cases, every person, organization, and entity within a state and some outside of the state are stakeholders of the education system – either as a financial contributor, recipient of implemented learning experiences, employer of graduates, or provider of educational services.  It is important, then, to understand a broad array of perspectives and determine the scope of stakeholders for varying levels of intensity in a Strategic Communications plan.

Activity 3: Determine the purposes, objectives, strategies and tactics of your SEA Strategic Communications Approach

Writing specific goals and objectives for the Strategic Communications plan assists with selecting the most meaningful strategies and tactics for implementing it.

Purposes of Strategic Communications: Not every activity that is considered communication is part of a Strategic Communications approach. Understanding what the agency intends to accomplish with its Strategic Communications approach will assist in determining which activities need to come under the umbrella of Strategic Communications. For example, one SEA may choose to use a Strategic Communications approach to build support for one new initiative while another SEA may desire to use Strategic Communications for all activities related to a new set of goals for the state.

Promising Practices: When selecting specific strategies, activities, or tactics for a Strategic Communications approach, SEAs will want to conduct a review of proven and promising practices to maximize the likelihood of success for the strategies.

Task 4: Review Strategic Communications plan templates, processes, and supporting resources


Guideline: This task includes templates, rubrics for assessing the effectiveness of existing plans, and other supporting documents for developing or implementing a plan.

7 Steps for Communicating Your School District's Story

This Battelle for Kids blog dated August 29, 2014, gives seven steps for communicating your school district’s story in a way that energizes, informs, and builds support among key stakeholders.


7 Steps to Create a Successful Strategic Communications Plan for Nonprofit Organizations

This March 2012 Wiley Online Library tool features a seven-step process to create a successful strategic communications plan for nonprofit organizations (Second Edition). 


Develop A Communications Plan in 9 Steps

This Catholic Relief Services communication plan defines the approach that a program will use to communicate with communities. This communications plan also helps ensure systematic information sharing and two-way communication. The nine steps in this template addresses the key aspects that programs should consider.


Developing a Communications Strategy

This Knowhow Nonprofit 2014 website gives a step-by-step guide for developing a strategic communications plan and crisis communications plan.


How to Write a Strategic Communications Plan in 8 Steps

Strategic communications helps an organization share a clearly defined message with everyone involved with that organization -- internally and externally. It is an intentional process that looks at what each audience within the group needs to hear from you. Via this wikiHow website, learn how to write a strategic communications plan in 8 steps so that your staff and customers not only stay informed, but stay engaged as well.


Steps to Creating a School Communications Plan

This February 2016 article states, “Effective communication is crucial to any organization, and schools are no different. With a comprehensive communications plan, you’ll be able to promote your school to parents and the community, connect with current students, attract future ones, and even successfully engage staff members.” This article provides a free download, School Communications Planning Guide, and alerts you to seven signs that your school communications are weak.


Writing a Public Relations Plan – 10 Step Process

This APR Online Prep Module Resource provides a 10-step process for writing a public relations plan.

Communications Plan Template

This resource offers a grid style communications plan template.


Communications Strategy Template

This Victoria State Government Department of Education for Early Childhood Development website provides a template that helps set out the key messages about the partnership as well as identify the target audiences you want to send the message to. It also enables you to consider any risks or issues that may arise from the partnership’s implementation and plan your communications accordingly.


Communications and Engagement Assessment Rubric

This Reform Support Network PDF provides a Communications and Engagement Assessment Rubric, which is a tool to help SEAs assess their current efforts to communicate with and engage stakeholders and consider options for improvement.


Strategic Communications Template Worksheet

This United Way tool provides a template developed to help you form a strategic communications plan and is meant to be used in conjunction with the Strategic Communications Template as it follows the same outline.


Template for Strategic Communications Plan

This W.K. Kellogg Foundation 2006 website offers a downloadable template for strategic communications.

Battelle for Kids Communications Success Planning Guide

This guide for education leaders and key communicators will help you develop organization-wide or issue-specific communications. You’ll learn about Battelle for Kids’ Stakeholder Engagement Framework and some strategic communications planning approaches to proactively frame messages, enable and manage change, shape behaviors, and establish and grow credibility and trust. Visit Battelle for Kids’ Learning Hub (www.bfk.org/learninghub) to find blogs, publications, success stories, videos, and other free resources to support your work.


Elements of a Strategic Communications Plan

This 22-paged guide from May 2017 offers the following elements for a Strategic Communications plan: Determine Goal, Identify and Profile Audience, Develop Messages, Select Communication Channels, Choose Activities and Materials, Establish Partnerships, Implement the Plan, and Evaluate and Make Mid-Course Corrections.


IMPACS Plan the Work: Strategic Communication Planning for Not-for-Profit Organizations

Authored by the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) for the Centre for Community Organizations, rather than offering you a "cookie cutter” communication plan template that one person from your organization could take away and stamp into a limited variety of situations, IMPACS provides you with a complete communication planning cookbook.


Stakeholder Engagement Framework

This Victoria State Government article on Education and Training provides a guidebook on stakeholder engagement for education organizations.

 


Strategic Communications Planning

This PDF eBook by Dave Fleet provides a comprehensive guide to effective strategic corporate communications planning.

Element 3: What are the processes for developing, implementing, and evaluating a Strategic Communications Approach?

Purpose: The iterative process of developing, implementing, evaluating, and revising a Strategic Communications approach is critical to its success. All steps of the process must be considered before implementation to monitor the effectiveness of the approach.

Activity 1: Explore examples of Strategic Communications plans and templates

In this activity, a variety of Strategic Communications plans are presented, including examples from inside and outside of the education field.  Examples of specific strategies and activities are provided to illustrate how a plan gets turned into actions and deliverables.  Additionally, templates, checklists, and guiding questions for key components of Strategic Communications plans are shared. 

No magic formula exists for Strategic Communications approaches, so the variety of plans presented are intended to be instructive and provide opportunities for SEAs to modify promising practices to meet the context of the agency. Remember: Stay true to the word "strategic." These samples and templates reflect the principle of proactive, impact-focused Strategic Communications. Resisting the temptation to be reactive and tactic-focused can be difficult in the fast pace of state agency work, but it is essential to successful outcomes in this arena.

Activity 2: Monitor and measure the success of your Strategic Communications Plan

It is imperative to monitor implementation and measure the success of the SEA’s Strategic Communication approach. Decision-makers need to see evidence of expected impact and, where necessary, which elements require adjustments for improved outcomes. Additionally, audience feedback is critical to communications success. Listening to stakeholder input, and reflecting changes based on it, will enhance and accelerate the work.